Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Wednesday Evening in Cobble Hill: BookCourt's Launch Party for "The Alcoholic" by Jonathan Ames and Dean Haspiel

When the greatest economist of the twentieth century married the most famous Russian ballerina of her day, Londoners marveled
Was there ever such a union of beauty and brains
As when Lydia Lopkovka married John Maynard Keynes?

This evening at the fabulous BookCourt in Cobble Hall, we got to see a similarly spectacular coming together of two great American talents, Brooklynites Jonathan Ames and Dean Haspiel, who've produced a graphic novel, The Alcoholic, of which Kirkus Reviews has said, "Rarely does a collaboration produce a graphic novel of such literary and artistic merit" and which The Los Angeles Times has called "a scabby and subversive masterpiece."

We are big fans of both these guys - in our 2006 review of Sexual Metamorphosis: An Anthology of Transsexual Memoirs in The American Book Review, we called Ames "perhaps the wittiest writer of his generation." We also loved Haspiel's artwork in collaboration with our old acquaintance Harvey Pekar on American Splendor and The Quitter and his other comics, not least of which his 1980s drawing of Richard Grayson.

So we got to Cobble Hill early and were in BookCourt's back room at least 15 minutes before the scheduled 7 p.m. reading/discussion with the author and artist. But we were out of luck: all the chairs were already taken or saved. But we figured Ames and Haspiel were worth standing for.

What we didn't know, and would find out only when we tried to leave, that there were over 100 people standing outside the inner room and even some on the street in front of the store. So we were lucky to have a great view and to be able to clearly hear Jonathan's trademark "hairy call" opening and closing.

We've experienced the three "hairy calls" before, most recently at last spring's PEN Awards ceremony at Lincoln Center, where our seatmates, the poet Kate Gale and writer Mark E. Cull of Red Hen Press, publishers of many great books and also our Silicon Valley Diet, were kind of surprised by Ames's thrilling trilling. To be honest, we thought until just looking it up that they were actually "Harry calls" because we don't associate Jonathan Ames with hair.

To us, Ames's copies of his male pattern baldness, which he passed out to the crowd to remind us that he knows he's losing (um, lost) his hair, were also old news. And he really needs to update it because, like the Arctic ice cap, his follicles have continued to disappear.

The event began a bit late because of the overflow crowd, but it was a terrific evening. Both Ames and Haspiel are big supporters of BookCourt, which has been a great resource for Brooklyn booklovers since 1981 (see The Written Nerd's excellent report on the store), and so the celebration of The Alcoholic had a neighborhood feel - as well as lots of cups of red wine passed around so the audience could better identify with the novel's hero, Jonathan A.

The novel's author, who may or may not be the model for the book's protagonist, read his hilarious essay "I Shit My Pants in the South of France," which The Signal described quite well:
It was a piece Ames penned when he was a columnist for the New York Press during the mid-'90s, which he included in his collection of essays What's Not To Love?: The Adventures of a Mildly Perverted Young Writer. It chronicles his visit to a strange doctor in SoHo for his first colonic - a water enema incurred for the purpose of cleansing the beleaguered colon - and the aftermath, noting that it was "completely autobiographical, however embarrassing that is."

As he had a lubricated tube inserted into him, which Ames said conjured images of Laurence Olivier in "Spartacus," he recounted an adventure from 1983 when he spent the summer taking classes in the South of France.

After drunkenly buying a rank tuna sandwich from a dirty gentleman outside a café, Ames was overtaken by wrenching stomach cramps that ended with an "(explosion of) diarrhea like a ruptured sewer main."

Following this exercise in scatological participatory journalism - we are of the half of humanity who loves scatological humor and can't get enough of that shit - Jonathan and Dean took questions.

The first two asked them about their favorite comedians and boxers (Muhammad Ali, Richard Pryor, Patton Oswalt) and then someone asked about the collaborative process in creating a graphic novel. The author and artist said that no drawing was done until things were written. Jonathan showed Dean old photos of himself, since the book is "semi-autobiographical," so that Dean could know, for instance, what Jonathan looked like in kindergrarten.

Dean said that he always focuses on one aspect of a character, and Jonathan's obviously was his prominent nose. Jonathan explained that DC had sent him material about how writers work on graphic novels: with each page, he wrote out the number of panels and then described the captions and dialogue to go within each.

Sometimes Dean would change a word or discuss his ideas for the story but they rarely disagreed - except at one point Jonathan felt his character was leering where he should have looked sweeter. Mostly, every two weeks, ten pages would go back and forth. Dean would pencil them and then ink them.

The creators of The Alcoholic said the work involved "lots of kismet," as they'd "traveled lateral roads" of drinking and drugs in their lives, albeit in very different ways. In response to a question about how they met, Dean said that as an admirer of Jonathan's classic essays in The New York Press, he saw him one day at the Fall Cafe on Smith Street in Carroll Gardens (our aside: we love the place too and have gone to great poetry readings there) and introduced himself.

What Jonathan said was particularly amazing was that Dean would often draw scenes from his life, like a childhood basketball court, exactly how it looked in real life. And he admired Dean's devotion to realism: to get drawings of Asbury Park right, Dean downloaded and studied dozens of photos from the Internet.

We were going to ask Dean how collaborating with Jonathan was different than working with Harvey Pekar but someone beat us to it. Dean said that "Jonathan is a writer; Harvey is a savant," that Jonathan "thinks about narrative structure" whereas Harvey "doesn't care what you draw" and might be happy if it were just his own head talking in every panel. Jonathan said he tried to make things interesting for his friend Dean so was conscious of putting in fight scenes and pretty girls into the narrative.

Someone asked Jonathan about his current projects, and he mentioned the HBO pilot of Bored to Death in which Jason Schwartzman will be playing his alter ego (rather than play himself as he did on Showtime's What's Not to Love?). Next summer Jonathan's new book, a collection of fiction and non-fiction The Double Life is Twice as Good, will be published.

We asked Dean about his projects, and he mentioned Fear, My Dear, the second installment of his Billy Dogma trilogy

and another book just coming out this month, but "for four-year-olds," entitled Mo and Jo: Fighting Together Forever.

After some more interesting questions about the constraints of writing graphic novels (Jonathan said he was forced to be concise, though he felt he usually was anyway) and how their friendship was affected by the collaboration (Dean said that from their first meeting, the two men hit it off, though Jonathan kept refusing his invitations to hang out and do stuff with Dean and his friends; Jonathan said that at the time he'd been in a relationship with a woman who didn't allow him to go out), the creators of The Alcoholic wrapped things up around 8 p.m. and many in the huge crowd went to get their copies of the book signed.

We stayed up too late reading The Alcoholic but we aren't sorry. As the L.A. Times said, the humor and a truly wicked honesty kept the pages turning.

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